CBCA: Subjective experience

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but Criteria-Based Content Analysis is based on the Undeutsch hypothesis, which states, “an account derived from memory of a self-experienced event will differ in content and quality from an account based on fabrication or imagination.” According to CBCA, one of the ways true stories differ from created stories is by including criteria #12, subjective experience. Basically, that means that when we’re telling true stories, we include information about how we felt or what we were thinking.

Two versions of a true story:

1) I went to CVS today to pick up a prescription. The pen I used to sign my credit card receipt was a vibrant orange.

2) I went to CVS today to pick up a prescription. I was feeling really annoyed, because my current health insurance is horrible and the prescription costs about $20 more than it used to under my old plan. When I signed the credit card receipt I had to smile though, because the pen was such a bright, vibrant orange that it made me think of sunshine.

Version 1 is actually not a bad little story: it includes some contextual embedding (a place and a date) and a weird detail in the shape of that orange pen. But Version 2 is a much better story because it includes my subjective experience–how I was feeling, what I was thinking.

As writers, we’re continually told “show, don’t tell.” If your character is feeling angry, you’re supposed to write him stomping across the room, a glare on his face. And yes, that’s good. But Twilight is one long stream of Bella’s feelings. People read it anyway. JK Rowling doesn’t shy away from telling us how Harry felt. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is overwhelmed, angry, scared, filled with hate—and that’s just in the five pages that I skimmed through while I was writing this. Suzanne Collins isn’t afraid to say how Katniss feels, using those exact words.

I’m sure somewhere along the way in this series, I’ve talked about the advice to not use “thinking” words. It’s valid advice. You don’t want to distance your reader from the characters and the action by adding in lots of extraneous words that separate them from the experience. For example:

“I noticed the sun was shining again. It felt warm on my face.”

is better as:

“The sun was shining again, warming my face.”

That said, for your stories to feel true, your point-of-view character should have feelings, thoughts, reactions, emotions. Delete the thinking words (as much as possible) but make sure that the subjective experience is still clear and real.

Your POV character should also think about the mental state of the characters around her. People don’t exist in a vacuum and most of us speculate about other people all the time. Including “attribution of the accused’s mental state” is criteria #13. In the context of writing, it means that your point-of-view character will seem more realistic if she is (reasonably) aware of other character’s emotions and attitudes.

I threw in that “reasonably” because you do have to be careful about this. Your point-of-view character cannot (unless she is Sylvie or Lucas from A Gift of Thought) know what someone else is thinking. But some POV purists view even simple lines like, “Ralph was angry” as verboten (assuming Ralph is not your POV character). In my opinion, though, if it is reasonable to assume that your POV character would be able to tell how Ralph was feeling, it’s better to include that detail than not.

It is, of course, better if you do it via words that show the reader what’s happening instead of just telling. “Ralph was angry” is not nearly as strong, for example, as “Ralph stomped across the room. Megan’s shoulders tightened. Any minute, he’d start yelling.” But one way or another, to make your stories more realistic, your POV character should attribute mental states to other characters.

Rather than summarizing everything, I’m going to go back and tag all the posts I’ve written on CBCA so that they’re easier to find, but one last note before I wrap up: it turns out that CBCA is not always terribly effective when it comes to lie detection. In a 2010 study from the Netherlands, researchers found that false stories told by high “fantasy-prone” individuals (ahem, that would be most of us, I’m guessing) are more believable than true stories told by low “fantasy-prone” individuals. Good story-tellers already are good liars and most of the elements of CBCA are probably already in your stories anyway, whether or not you’re telling the truth. Still, when a story is feeling weak, looking for details that provide contextual embedding, stand out by virtue of being strange or unusual, and include the emotions & thoughts of your protagonist and her opinions of the same for other characters can help make your story more believable.

The truth of a story lies in the details.

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